The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Hungarian Journalist Attila Mong

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Journalist Attila Mong. Photo provided by Attila Mong.

Journalist Attila Mong. Photo provided by Attila Mong.

Since January of this year, before Europe felt the full impact of the refugee crisis, the Hungarian government has been running nationalistic anti-immigrant advertising campaigns across the country. These campaigns refuse to call the people fleeing war-torn nations “refugees.” Instead, the campaigns refer to all as “migrants,” and depict them as an inhuman horde in order to consolidate the power of the ruling and increasingly autocratic Fidesz party.

In 2010, the Fidesz party took a two-thirds majority in parliament and passed sweeping constitutional reform. Part of this reform included amending media regulations in an act widely criticized by other member states of the European Union. Since then, the government has made a few concessions but continues to consolidate its power, including increasing use of state media to push government propaganda.

Attila Mong is a tireless advocate for a free and open press in Hungary. From 2003 to 2004, he uncovered one of the largest banking fraud scandals in Hungarian history, implicating many government officials. Attila acted as a catalyst for protests against the repressive media laws in 2010, and continued his work at Atlatszo.hu and the Mérték Media Monitor. As a 2013 John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, he worked on the creation of a global collaborative legal database for media professionals. The Hungarian press freedom advocate spoke with Sampsonia Way about how Hungary’s media laws and policies are impacting the refugee crises in that country.


Under Hungarian law, most media outlets must provide balanced reporting, and all reporters must respect “human dignity’ and “public morality” or face massive fines from the Media Council. How have these vague laws been used to manipulate the media?

There is a slight misunderstanding in international media concerning the media laws. Some of the clauses you just mentioned, especially the clause on balanced coverage, have been changed. Under pressure of the European Union, the Hungarian government had to introduce several modifications to the media law months after it was approved in 2010, including the content regulations for journalists and media outlets. So some of these clauses are not in place anymore, but the Media Council and the media authorities have never really used the clauses that are in place. There are several reasons behind this. It is partly due to the international outcry and pressure from the European Commission and the European Parliament. Yet more importantly, the Hungarian center-right wing government used the controversial media legislation to create a framework for a much bigger game. Their aim was to solidify their positions in the media, occupy the most important parts of the mainstream public media, and influence private media outlets.

Do you think the threat of fines introduces a form of what the Mérték Media Monitor called “soft censorship,” where various news outlets censor themselves due to economic concerns or the fear of fines?

Yes, the emphasis is much more on economic concerns. But, the economic concerns do not necessarily come from the fear of fines, because these measures have not been tested by the Media Council and the media authorities. Some of these measures are still valid and in effect, but these clauses are not used. The government uses other methods to influence the media through economic pressures, namely advertising and directing state funds to media outlets. State advertising in itself is not very important, about five percent of the Hungarian market, but it can turn outlets from unprofitable to profitable, and it can contribute to the business performance of certain private outlets. I am working with a media think tank called Mérték, and we have been quite active in researching how these state advertising funds are used. We have come to the conclusion that most of the state advertising was channeled to loyal media outlets: media outlets that were private, but in the hands of businessmen and oligarchs close to the government.

This state advertising creates a sort of soft censorship in those outlets because of economic concerns. Also, some of these outlets and editors and journalists present biased coverage because they really believe that the government actions are good. We also have to know that some of the critical, opposition-minded outlets simply get no state advertising. But the state has much more influence on the general economic life in Hungary. Why? Because the state has different means to introduce new measures, like legal requirements for banks, retail outlets, and telecom companies. The Hungarian government has even introduced special taxes for certain sectors. The most important private advertisers prefer not to advertise in certain outlets that are clearly opposition-minded, because they are afraid that once they advertise in those outlets, the government will punish them with special taxes and requirements.

So in the last couple of years we have seen some of the largest multinational banks and retail companies quite obediently followed the path of state advertising. All this is not directly linked to the media legislation, but the media legislation created the framework. The media legislation also created the framework to the complete transformation of the publicly financed media, which is more and more called “state media,” because taxpayer money is used for government propaganda. State TV and state radio are, more and more, acting as a government mouthpiece. They heavily emphasize government propaganda in news coverage.

How has the government gained or solidified its power by restricting the access to information about refugees and the refugee crisis?

The state media creates this narrative. Big chunks of the private media are also in the hand of the government. They are either in the hands of businessmen directly linked to the government or businessmen who want to do business with the state and follow the government’s narrative. So what the government has been doing in the past couple of years is focus on the mainstream media, TV and radio, as sources of information for most of the population. We have a situation that is like that in Russia, so we are often speaking of Putin-izing the Hungarian media.

The Hungarian government is building a fence around the country to defend the European Union’s borders from the refugee crisis. In response, one of the smaller weekly’s in Hungary published a cover depicting Victor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, as Adolf Hitler. In this image, Orban had a mustache made of the barbed wire fence. You can do this in Hungary, so you cannot speak of an overarching censorship, because then such coverage would simply be unimaginable.

The government is justified in saying there is press freedom, but press freedom is definitely limited. This puts Hungary in the “partly free” category according to Freedom House and other press freedom institutions, and I think this characterizes the situation very well. In certain publications, on the Internet, you can do almost anything you want. But there are legal limitations; Hungary has a very strong civil code, privacy regulations are very strong, and a strong penal code. Defamation is still criminalized for journalists. So there are quite important regulations outside the media legislation. And still, most of the mainstream is occupied. The radio market has been completely transformed by the media authority during the last couple years. The big player in radio news coverage is a state broadcaster in the hand of government-friendly private businessmen, covering the whole country. In the past couple of years, this radio station won a lot of new licenses all around the country, and the stations that were holding these licenses before simply lost them. If you go into small to medium provincial and regional towns, government-friendly outlets fully occupy the radio market. You have the state media, right-wing stations, and religious stations, which all closely follow the government’s news coverage.

Recently the state-run media requested that their broadcasters not show refugee children. Are these sorts of practices common in state media, and how are they trying to affect the discourse surrounding the refugee crisis?

The state media didn’t deny such an instruction to the editors, because the instruction leaked to different publications. We have screenshots of these instructions from the internal computer system of the state broadcaster. The state media said the reason for this instruction was to defend the privacy of refugee kids. In my opinion, this was a quite laughable justification, because when you deliver the news you have to show the full picture. Most of these people who flee war zones or are simply migrants, they come with families and kids, and it’s very important to show this.

The state media outlets also never use the word “refugee,” they always apply the term “migrant,” even to the people who flee wars zones. Most of the people who come to Hungary come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but the state broadcaster doesn’t really care about this differentiation. You don’t hear human stories of the suffering of the refugees, instead you see news reports on the flood of people, the crowds, how they want to enter the country, and how they cross the border fence. They depict these people as criminals without giving the real background about why these people flee. This is to create an atmosphere of fear.

Just recently, some independent newspapers covered what kind of coverage the state media present. There are reports that the state media are trying to show violent video footage that the national security agency got out of migrants’ and refugees’ mobile phones, images that show people being executed and beheaded, to say these are not migrants but terrorists. This is the main message of these reports, even if now we know this footage is of dubious origins.

The governing party has built its whole political strategy and political campaign on the refugee crisis since the beginning of this year. Even before refugees arrived in the country, which peaked in August and September, the government started a very strong billboard campaign in which they spoke about migrants and refugees, saying these people will come to Hungary and will take away peoples’ jobs, and not respect the country’s traditions and rules. These billboards and similar campaigns aim to create an atmosphere of fear in which the government’s response seems to be justified. When you have a climate of fear and the government is depicted as an actor that builds fences and defends the border, then it contributes to the rise in popularity of the governing party.

Do you think the depiction of refugees as criminals in the Hungarian media affects the rest of the EU in any way and the views in the rest of the EU?

When we speak of this coverage, we have to say of course there are other narratives as well, mainly online and in some private outlets. In reference to the last question, when the refugee crisis peaked in August and September, there was an outpouring of support and love by average Hungarians. In Budapest, thousands of people organized themselves to help the refugees with food, blankets, water, and other needs. The state media and the TV and radio stations close to the government have never covered this.

How much it affects the EU’s coverage, I don’t think it really does. We have experienced similar coverage in other Eastern European countries to a lesser extent as well, in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. The Western European and most of the EU media has nothing to do with the state of the Hungarian media, so the fact that we are speaking of a country that is a member of the EU that is considered to be only partly free makes a clear difference in the coverage between these countries.

So if you go to Austria or Germany or France, you have much more complex coverage by the media. Their main narrative, especially in Germany, Austria, and the Nordic countries — the largest recipients of these refugees — is completely different. It shows the refugees and migrants as people who are in deep trouble and who flee war zones, and who need help from the majority of society to be quickly an fully integrated into the Western European society. In the Western media, especially German media, there is a lot of coverage of how the Eastern European and Hungarian media cover the crisis.

You mentioned small online media platforms — what sort of work are these platforms, specifically Atlatszo.hu, doing to push back against the narrative presented by Obran’s government and the mainstream media?

Atlatszo.hu is a non-profit investigative journalism center that was created four years ago, and now is almost fully crowd-funded. The site is an online newspaper, with a very strong Facebook presence and podcasts, with a large multimedia presence in Hungary. It is almost fully funded by average Hungarians who contribute monthly to the financing of this site. It is quite an important social media outlet, but we can only use social media as a distribution channel. The mainstream media is not really covering our investigations, or the way we cover certain events.

Originally the site was created to focus on corruption issues and transparency problems, a lot of freedom-of-information requests, and a lot of specific investigations into small-scale and large-scale corruption cases, but the refugee crisis created a new situation for this initiative. Since the summer, Atlatszo.hu is focusing on the refugee crisis; how the government is handling the crisis, how the institutions and authorities are handing the crisis, and how the media coverage fails regarding the crisis.

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